Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack to San Diego State: It’s payback time | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack to San Diego State: It’s payback time

Nevada guard Jazz Johnson drives past San Diego State forward Yanni Wetzell on Jan. 18 in San Diego, when the Aztecs won, 68-55.
Denis Poroy/AP | FR59680 AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack owes the San Diego State Aztecs a little payback. A year ago the Wolf Pack was flying high, ranked No. 6 in the country with a 24-1 record on Feb. 20, 2019. The Pack then traveled to San Diego State and lost 65-57. A month later, on March 15, 2019, the Pack was ranked 14th in the country with a 29-3 record. The Aztecs then handed the Pack a 68-55 loss in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas. This year the roles have been reversed. San Diego State, which comes to Lawlor Events Center for the final regular season game of the season on Saturday, is 27-1 and ranked No. 5 in the nation. The Pack is 19-10 but nowhere near the Top 25 rankings. The Pack, which lost at San Diego State 68-55 back on Jan. 18, needs to stomp on the Aztecs’ season much like the Aztecs stomped on the Pack’s season a year ago. A win on Saturday and, more importantly, once again in the Mountain West tournament next weekend if they meet, would be a nice payback.

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The UNLV Rebels, as they often have in the last 60 or so years, have already kind of spoiled the Wolf Pack’s party. It was the Rebels last Saturday, after all, that handed the Aztecs their only loss of the year, 66-63 at San Diego. And, now, the Aztecs don’t appear to be so unbeatable. The loss, apparently, didn’t make the Aztecs mad. It seems to have made them lose a ton of confidence. San Diego State responded to its loss to UNLV by almost losing again. The Aztecs had to rally for an ugly 66-60 win over Colorado State (also at San Diego) this past Tuesday. The Aztecs now look like they are running on fumes, a bit wore out from the pressure of being ranked in the Top 10 for much of the year and trying to remain perfect (see the Wolf Pack in 2018-19). A Pack win on Saturday at Lawlor now might not even be all that much of an upset, given that the Pack is on a six-game winning streak, has won 20 Mountain West home games in a row and has beaten the Aztecs three consecutive times at Lawlor.

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The Aztecs now might not even be the best team in the Mountain West. The role now might belong to the Utah State Aggies, the team picked to win the conference going into the season. The Aggies, which beat the Wolf Pack 80-70 in Utah on Jan. 11, have won six in a row and nine of 10. Neemias Queta, a 7-foot sophomore, has averaged 15.8 points and 10 rebounds in the Aggies six-game winning streak and appears to be past the injury problems that plagued him earlier in the season. Sam Merrill (18.9 points a game) is the best scorer in the Mountain West this side of the Pack’s Jalen Harris. And Utah State also comes at you with 6-7 sophomore Justin Bean, who averages a double-double (12.5 points, 10.4 rebounds) and four others (Abel Porter, Alphonso Anderson, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller) who all average between 6.3 and 8.3 points a game. The real Mountain West tournament title game might actually be in the semifinals between the Aggies and Wolf Pack.

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Senior Night and a matchup against the 27-1 Aztecs might be what the Wolf Pack needs right now. The Wolf Pack could use a little energy boost. The Wolf Pack has won six in a row but it hasn’t played all that well lately. The Pack had to hold off Wyoming, a 7-22 team with two Mountain West wins, 73-68 on Tuesday. Last Saturday the Pack was staring defeat in the face before pulling out a 78-76 win over Fresno State at home. Two games before that the Pack had to go to overtime to beat UNLV 72-69. There is no cause for alarm. The Wyoming and UNLV games were on the road. The Pack is also adjusting to Harris simply being very good and not out-of-this-world great. Harris is averaging 24.5 points a game over the last four games after averaging 32.8 over the previous four. Harris is not the issue. He is good-to-great every night. The issue is whether or not Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew and Nisre Zouzoua will step up and give the Pack reliable No. 2 and 3 scorers.

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No matter what happens the rest of the way, this season has to be deemed a huge success for the Wolf Pack. A 19-win season is a solid accomplishment for a team that was in disarray after former coach Eric Musselman left for Arkansas last April. Only Johnson and Zouzoua (last year) played with each other before this season and Zouzoua barely played a year ago (just 126 minutes all year). New coach Steve Alford cobbled together a team that barely knew each other nine months ago and turned them into a 19-game (or more) winner with a legitimate chance to win the conference tournament and go to the NCAA tournament.

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Has this Pack team overachieved this year? It depends on when you established your expectations. If you looked at the program back in late April or May when most everyone was in the transfer portal then, yes, 19 wins in late February is an overachievement. There was a point last spring when this looked like a team on the verge of about 15 wins in 2019-20. Nobody really knew how good Harris would be. Zouzoua, based on last year, was a waste of a uniform. Johnson was a 5-foot-10 guard who just shot threes. Drew was coming off hip and Achilles surgeries. But, looking back, this team hasn’t been lucky and it hasn’t done it with mirrors and sleight of hand. It deserves to be among the best teams in the Mountain West. Alford has talked about this team’s inexperience all year long and it sounds nice and heartwarming but, in truth, this is a very experienced team with a ton of talent. Harris played two seasons at Louisiana Tech. Drew played three seasons for the Pack. Johnson played two years at Portland and one at Nevada. Zouzoua played two years at Bryant and one at Nevada. Johncarlos Reyes played three years at Boston College. Robby Robinson had one year at San Diego City College. Harris, Drew and Johnson is a big-time Big Three. Zouzoua might be the best bench player in the Mountain West. Their skills blend together perfectly. There is a lot of talent and, yes, experience on this roster. A 20-win season (or more) with a chance to go to the NCAA tournament is right where it should be right now.

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The Wolf Pack baseball team would like the season to start over. The Pack, which opens a homestand on Friday at Peccole Park, is an eye-opening 0-6 to start the year after three games at Portland and three more at Oregon. The 0-6 record, though, isn’t even the ugliest set of numbers surrounding this Pack team right now. The Pack is hitting just .176 this year and has been outscored 48-10. The pitching staff has a 7.63 earned run average. The Pack hitters have struck out 53 times and walked just 11 times. The Pack has just eight extra-base hits in six games. Dillan Shrum, at .286, is the only player that has started more than one game who is hitting above. 217. Start the year over. February is way too early for a team from Northern Nevada to open a baseball season. It was just last month, after all, that the Pack played a football bowl game. The good news is that 0-6 is not a death sentence for a baseball team. It would kill a football season and destroy the confidence of a basketball team but in baseball all it does is make for a couple bad weekends.